Belting it Out for an Audience


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New play staged in East Village karaoke bar


East Village For director Kathryn Hamilton, the sight of words lighting up on a karaoke screen with a buoyant dot jumping from one word to the next is "one of the most melancholy things in the world."


"I don't know why," said Hamilton. "Maybe it's the absence of the body in that space. Maybe it's the assumption of joy that's not being fulfilled."


Rarely do karaoke lounge lizards garner a paying audience, but Hamilton's charging admission. Her latest play, "Dead Behind These Eyes," opens August 29 in a karaoke bar on Avenue A, a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park. Inspired by "Look Back in Anger," British playwright John Osborne's 1956 play about class and political apathy, Hamilton translates the conceits and regrets of discontented youth from a traditional stage to a karaoke setting, complete with a modern pop soundtrack that includes songs by artists as diverse as Jeff Buckley and Katy Perry.


Hamilton began developing the show with her theater company Sister Sylvester around the same time the Occupy Wall Street protest movement took root in Zuccotti Park. The serendipitous alignment led her and her collaborators to consider their involvements (and lack of) in modern political movements, a scenario that plagues the disaffected young characters in Osborne's text.


"You have these characters essentially stuck in a room, and they lash out at one another because they're bored," said Jeremy Barker, dramaturge for the production. "They're just sort of stuck there. So what we did was we took that and basically put it in a karaoke bar."


At each performance, the line between the performers and the 12 audience members blurs, Barker said. Without the distance implied by the fourth wall, the audience members might not realize at first who the actors are among them.


Hamilton's production references Osborne's work?a groundbreaking and defiant text in pre-sixties Britain?but loosely. Non-narrative and without distinct characters, "Dead Behind These Eyes" follows the bar structure of a musical composition, though the actors improvise and adapt based on the audience's reaction during a given performance.


"People come in with really different expectations to a karaoke room than they do in a theater," Hamilton said. "The codes you assume in a theater just aren't there, partly because of the intimacy and the setup and the way the performers speak to the audience, but partly because people have had a few drinks and they're walking into a karaoke room. They have a different frame to understand what's being performed there."


Mariah MacCarthy, a playwright and producer, favors site-specific theater for intimate and immersive audience experiences, which are more difficult to achieve in a traditional black-box theater, and also more expensive. She staged her latest show in a friend's apartment in Astoria, and split ticket sales with the host. Renting a theater space for one week can cost, at the very minimum, $2,000, she said, a prohibitive amount for many small companies.


MacCarthy suggested that the popularity of "Sleep No More," an immersive adaptation of "Macbeth" that opened in a series of Chelsea warehouses in 2011, made site-specific work more visible, but not necessarily more prevalent.


"Everything site-specific that came after that, everyone had to compare to 'Sleep No More' to understand what it was," she said. "But it's been there longer than people have noticed."


In "Dead Behind These Eyes," the actors reach for the microphone, of course, though the show is not a musical, Hamilton said. Instead, the play possesses a crucial soundtrack, and some of the singing is what you'd expect at a karaoke lounge on any other evening, Hamilton said, echoing the nature of individual involvement, whether in sing-alongs or political movements.


"It's about participation, right?" she said. "On all these levels, participation is not necessarily about virtuosity, but the act of participating."


To that end, staging the show in a karaoke lounge was a logical choice. Since Sing Sing Karaoke, where the show takes place, doesn't open until the evenings, the actors rehearsed in the space during the day. And, Hamilton said, karaoke is akin to theater.


"A play is a piece of karaoke, too," Hamilton said. "Speaking these other people's words, maybe like you mean them or maybe like you don't. Maybe with distance, but they're words that aren't yours."


"Dead Behind These Eyes" opens on August 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Sing Sing Karaoke (81 Avenue A), and runs through September 19. For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit abronsartscenter.org.


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